The public health orders that sought to contain the spread of the coronavirus shut down gyms, bars and restaurants. The restrictions left essential industries mostly free to operate, and farmers were …
The public health orders that sought to contain the spread of the coronavirus shut down gyms, bars and restaurants. The restrictions left essential industries mostly free to operate, and farmers were categorically among that group. Closing down restaurants changed the way people eat, but consumers still needed food.
Craft beer production, however, is a different matter. As Penrose-area farmer Fred Hopkin explained in an April column in the Tribune, craft beer is a “social” beer. When public health orders shut down taprooms, a large source of the demand for barley dried up.
Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., a Wisconsin-based malt producer with facilities in Ralston, is a prime supplier of ingredients for craft brewers across the country. Even though Wyoming’s restrictions were considerably more permissive than other states, the company was impacted by the more restrictive closures in other states.
“We service the majority of craft breweries in the U.S.,” explained Rick Redd, Briess regional manager at the company’s Ralston receiving station.
As a result of the sudden drop in demand for craft brewing ingredients, Briess invoked a force majeure clause in its contracts, which is common in all kinds of commodity contracts, saying it would only guarantee purchase of 50% of the contracted harvest.
Redd has been in the business since the mid-1970s, and he said the drop in demand was unprecedented.
“I have seen a lot of things, but I have never seen an impact like the COVID did to us,” he said.
David Northrup, who grows barley on the Willwood, was fortunate enough to get the news when he had planted 60% of his crop — a total of 130 acres. He stopped there and used the remaining empty fields for other crops, but the Briess’ news was a surprise.
“I’ve seen it with other crops but not with barley,” Northrup said. “Barley has always been consistent and a nice crop to raise. They pay well, and Briess has been an amazing family to work with.”
Redd said April and May demand were “terrible,” but June and July brought much improvement. Briess has now committed to buying 100% of the contracted quantities.
It’s good news for the farmers, but it could be a while before things are back to normal. Redd points out that Texas, Florida and California are reinstating closures in response to spikes in confirmed cases of coronavirus.
“It depends on what happens this fall and how long this COVID thing hangs around,” Redd said.
Jessica Laughlin, co-owner of WYOld West Brewing Company in Powell, said they are managing to continue operations, albeit with some restrictions. They have to use new glasses for each pour, which means more washing and more expenses. They also have to keep seating separated, but they have a large area to work with in their establishment.
“We’ve had a few slow nights, but typically we’re full,” Laughlin said.
Steve Samuelson, a brewer with WYOld West, said they’ve done well on the wholesale side. A Cheyenne distributor — one of their largest of the four they currently use — has maintained steady orders, with the distributor’s July orders matching June.
Laughlin said the biggest impact of the pandemic is to their events — the brewfests. While these don’t bring in a lot of revenue, they’re important to advertising and networking in the highly competitive craft brew market.
It’s having an effect across Wyoming’s craft brew industry. The organizers of the Laramie Brewfest, which brings in over 2,000 participants to sample beers, canceled the event for the first time in 15 years amid health and safety concerns.
Michelle Forster, executive director of Wyoming Craft Brewers Guild, said the rebound in sales for June and July is certainly good news, but the industry is still in a difficult position.
“Saying that it’s bouncing back … is an overly optimistic term. It’s more of a steady climb, a meandering steady climb,” Forster said.
She estimates about 90% of the industry’s sales are sold on-site in the taprooms. Of the 38 breweries in the state, 33 are taproom only. Forster estimates about 90% of Wyoming’s craft beer sales are done on-site. She expects the impacts of the shutdowns are going to have a lasting impact.
“Even though it was only a couple months, it put them in a really fragile position,” Forster said.
One day at a time
And even though Wyoming’s taprooms can operate with restrictions, many consumers are still reluctant to gather in public places. Forster said she expects contracted sales into next year and that the industry might not completely rebound until there’s a widely available vaccine.
“I know that’s difficult on the farmers, for sure,” Forster said.
She said Wyoming Malting Company in Pine Bluffs and Briess are the primary suppliers of craft brew ingredients. Briess’ presence in the Big Horn Basin makes them attractive to many brewers.
“We have a really good relationship with them, and their product is very high quality,” Forster said.
The breweries, meanwhile, are having to get creative with their revenue sources. That means selling everything from merchandise — T-shirts and glassware — to selling at farmers’ markets.
To support the breweries and their supporting industries, including farmers, Forster suggested people buy directly from the brewers. Many are offering curbside sales or other means of purchase.
WYOld West has been able to keep humming along with its wholesale sales and its taproom, and Laughlin said they’re making do for the time being.
“We have a positive attitude moving forward,” she said. “We just take it one day at a time.”
For farmers, the pandemic was unfortunate and unexpected, but hopefully a one-time event. Redd of Briess remarked that the farmers were understanding that no one, including Briess, could have seen this coming.
Northrup said this year’s situation hasn’t undermined his faith in barley, and he plans to plant more next season.
“Then, we’ll see what happens,” the farmer said.